The landscape here is mountainous, and the highest peaks are laden with wispy clouds. From Xela, it’s about a two hour ride north to the village of Xacana Grande. It is the rainy season now, and the valleys are lush with green. In the distance a storm was building, slowly consuming the blue sky. I could hear the distant thunder over the loud engine and blaring music. The rickety old school bus, repainted in vivid color and decked out with speakers and stickers, clambered up the bumpy and windy road, gradually revealing a grand view of the valley. Every bit of cultivable land in sight is covered in a patchwork pattern of plots, the vast majority being milpas, and few others, most likely beans or potatoes. Maize is the main crop here in the department of Quetzaltenango, which farmers grow to feed their large families. The growing season for maize began in mid-March, when the rains came. Today, in mid-May, most milpas have been growing for about 45 days.
Walking from the bus down the dirt road towards Xacana Grande, I was greeted by our promotor in the area, Ender Reneé Lopez. Together with his family, we sat down for lunch. The Lopez family greeted me with the kindness of a long lost cousin, and I immediately felt at home in their simple and beautiful home. Following a delicious lunch of corn tamales and beans, Ender’s father Miguel Angel took me on a walk through their family’s land. “Ahora vamos a limpiar la milpa” (“Now, we go to clean the milpa”) he said as we walked down the dirt path, machete and azadon in hand. Miguel Angel explained that ‘cleaning’ is a process that happens once in the growing season, after about 40 days. Farmers apply by-hand their mix of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (in the form of pellets) and use the azadon to cover the base of the corn with nearby soil, ensuring that the pellets are absorbed by the plants. I asked him how many farmers in the area use this method, and he replied “todos” (“all”).
Many people in this area farm in their spare time, working various jobs to supplement their income. In the Lopez family, Miguel Angel commutes to nearby Sibilia to work as a janitor; his sons Ender and Baní teach secondary education in Xacana; and Ender also works planting trees for his uncle. The family also manages a small store, selling baked goods and snacks from their home. Their youngest daughter has aspirations to become a doctor, but will have to pay daily to continue her education past 6th grade. The maize harvest sustains the food needs of the family for the year, but doesn’t allow for extras. In the beginning, chemical fertilizers provided a good option for families like this one, allowing farmers to gain a reasonable harvest with minimal labor. However, chemical agriculture is slowly decreasing the potentials of these harvests by degrading the land, and making people like the Lopez family increasingly reliant on external sources of income.
The Lopez family is exemplary in their community. They provide housing and food for students at the nearby secondary school, who would otherwise be forced to commute for hours each day; they share their machine for grinding corn into meal, saving local women whole days of cranking a grinder by hand. Ender is encouraged by his family’s example, and receptive to the benefits of sustainable farming. Promotores like Ender are our most valuable resource. Starting June fourth, he will have three volunteers from Semilla Nueva living and working with him on three excting projects: worm compost, contour ditches, and sustainable theory coupled with worm composting in the nearby primary school. These projects will spread information and provide examples of sustainable techniques in this area, all facilitated by the devotion of Ender and his family.